Castles of Kent and Sussex holiday cottages

Castles of Kent and Sussex

The coastal counties of Kent and Sussex are home to some of the most beautiful and important castles in England. Rich in history and architecture and bounded by intrigue, beauty and passion, they have also seen their fair share of war, plague and riots over the centuries. Perfectly situated to ward off enemies from across the Channel, many of the castles dominating the Kent and Sussex landscape are still as spectacular today as they were hundreds of years ago.

Some remain in their original glory and are the perfect place to while away an enchanting afternoon imagining what it was like to be a part of castle life. Others are just ruins, brought down by enemy fire during centuries of war and conflict, now only a sad testament to all that they have gone through over the years.

We have put together a fabulous guide that will give you a glimpse into some of our finest castles as well as various historical ruins that you may wish to visit while you are here. There is a map at the bottom of the guide which gives you an indication to their location - you may need a couple of weeks to do them all, but we think that it's well worth it!

The dramatic castles of Kent

Hever Castle

"Alas my love you do me wrong, to cast me off discourteously..."

This romantic 13th century castle may not have the majestic size of its siblings but in terms of beauty and history, it really does hold its own. With startling russet-coloured ivy that wraps itself enticingly around the castle, it isn’t difficult to imagine it as the place where romance blossomed between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

The castle is home to 700 years of fascinating British history and it is home to the lock that Henry VIII used to take away with him when visiting various houses around the country. Every room that he stayed in was closed with this lock for his safety and you can see it for yourself at Hever Castle.

Can I have a little history before I go?

Hever’s origins were as a medieval defensive castle, built in 1270 with gatehouse and walled bailey. It later became home to the Boleyn family from 1462 to 1539 who added the Tudor part within the walls. Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I spent her early youth there, though it later became the property of the king’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves after Henry VIII bestowed it upon her as part of the settlement at the end of their marriage. The castle went on to pass through various families and eventually fell into disrepair.

There have been three stages of renovation to the castle over the years, the last of which was overseen by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor who bought it and invested time and care into restoring the castle, also adding the Italian Garden to the grounds to house his statues. The estate was sold in 1983 to a private company who now use the castle as a conference centre, though it is still open to the public.

"And I have loved you oh so long, delighting in your company..."

Should I take a tour or do it alone?

You can take a self-guided tour at Hever – there are lots of information boards to help you (and trails for children) but you can also book a multimedia guide or a private guided tour for the full experience. You have three floors to discover with various antique pieces of furniture as well as a large collection of Tudor paintings.

The Inner Hall is fascinating and would have originally been the Great Kitchen in Tudor times. You will see Henry VIII’s bedchamber, which is where he would have stayed when courting Anne Boleyn, as well as a room that was thought to be her bedroom. A highlight of the tour must be Anne Boleyn’s prayer books, which can be seen in a beautifully illuminated display with her handwriting and signature. The tour ends at the oldest part of the castle - the Medieval Council Chamber in the Gatehouse, which dates back to the 13th century. The gatehouse is the only original part that remains of the castle and the portcullis is the oldest working original in the country.

What else can I do there?

There are two mazes in the grounds - the yew maze, which is over 100 years old, and the more recent water maze whose aim is to get you to the folly at the centre without getting wet! There is also an adventure playground for children and a lovely boating lake as well as the award-winning beautiful gardens, all set in 125 acres of glorious grounds - you can still see the Italian gardens put in by Astor.

There are exhibitions during the winter as well as wonderful winter walks and fun Christmas events at the end of the year. Summertime welcomes jousting tournaments and archery displays so there is always something to do besides the castle tour. The castle is also home to a gorgeous collection of miniature model houses and there are shops and restaurants for when you need to rest your weary legs.

"Greensleeves was my heart of joy, and who but my lady Greensleeves..."

Is my dog allowed?

Dogs on leads are welcome in the grounds.

What is the entry price?

Adults from £15.90, concessions from £13.50 and children from £8.95.

Leeds Castle

Famously referred to as the ‘castle of queens, queen of castles’, the exquisite Leeds Castle could be straight out of a fairy tale. One of the most iconic castles in the country, you can often see its golden hues peeking out from magazines across the globe, tempting visitors to come and see it in all its glory. And no wonder! Rising out from a spectacular moat and surrounded by 500 acres of glorious gardens and parkland, it is one of the most visited historic buildings in Britain.

Packed with art-deco furnishings and beautiful paintings, it is truly a delight to walk around the elegant rooms. It is also home to the brilliant Dog Collar Museum which has a fascinating display of over 130 rare and unusual collars spanning five centuries.

Can I have a little history before I go?

Leeds was once a Norman stronghold, and has been the private property of six English queens. Used as a palace by Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, it has worn various other hats over the centuries, including that of a Jacobean country house and a Georgian mansion.

The first part of the castle, made of stone, was built by a Norman baron in 1119 on an island in the River Len; over a hundred and fifty years later, it became the property of the first wife of Edward I, Queen Eleanor of Castile. Over the next few hundred years, the castle remained a royal residence and eventually became a private home.

Should I take a tour or do it alone?

Leeds is primarily a free flow castle, so you can look around at your leisure. You can book an audio tour – a great choice is the one from the servant’s perspective which will explain their life to you as you walk around. There are staff on hand in all the rooms and informative notice boards, so you won’t be lost for information.

Travel through 900 years of fascinating history as you visit the wonderful rooms, the Dog Collar Museum, the Battle of the Skies exhibition and the brilliant Gatehouse exhibition, set in the ancient Gatehouse of the castle. From early Norman beginnings to the Tudor splendour of Henry VIII, it is recreated perfectly by illustration and film as well as original artefacts.

What else can I do there?

Not only is the castle an amazing day out by itself, but there is a great selection of outdoor activities, including a maze with over 2000 yew trees. The maze is unique as even though it is a square, when you look at it from the air, you see a circular pattern. Because of this unusual shape, it is difficult to solve but if you do and you get the chance to return to civilisation, you must return from the middle of the maze through the underworld grotto. Just be careful of all the mythical beasts that peer out at you from all corners on your way back!

There are falconry displays and punting on the moat as well as various adventure playgrounds for little ones and older children. Adults simply must visit the beautiful gardens which include the Culpeper Gardens, the Wood Garden and The Lady Baillie Mediterranean Garden Terrace, the latter of which is set on the site of Lady Baillie’s original aviary.

Read our guide about other beautiful Kent and Sussex gardens that you can visit while you are here.

You will need to re-energise after all of this so head to one of various onsite eateries – choose from the Castle View Restaurant, the Maze Café and Grill, or Costa Coffee for something lighter. Once you have had your caffeine fix, head to the lovely shops on the estate to buy souvenirs from your visit – the sparkling wines are much recommended, and the beautiful scarves and jewellery are perfect for a birthday or Christmas present.

Is my dog allowed?

Sadly not, due to the abundance of wildfowl on the estate.

What is the entry price?

Prices are £24.90, concessions £21.90 and children £16.90. Once you buy a ticket, you can visit as many times as you like during the year.

Dover Castle

"There'll be bluebirds over, the white cliffs of Dover...tomorrow, just you wait and see..."

Perched majestically at the top of the renowned White Cliffs of Dover, this important castle is famously known as the ‘key to England’ due to its strategic position at the entry point to the UK. The largest castle in the country, it has protected its inhabitants for over 2000 years against invasion.

The castle and grounds are very much like the typical fortress that you would see on the front of a child’s puzzle – the perfect square shape with huge towers surrounded by fortress walls and hilly mounds. With exhibitions, secret wartime tunnels and an underground hospital to explore, this is truly one of the best castles to visit in the land!

Can I have a little history before I go?

Thought to be situated on the site of an Iron Age hillfort, the first buildings were established when the Romans built a lighthouse after invading in AD 43. Just after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror decided to strengthen its defences by building what was the first real structure, an earthwork and timber castle. Later in the 12th century, Henry II turned its great tower into a palace where he would welcome many important and distinguished visitors from overseas. The first half of the 13th century saw huge walls built around the tower, which were put to the test during various sieges.

Over the next few centuries, more additions were made to the castle, particularly during the 18th century when England was faced with the threat of invasion from Napoleonic France. Huge underground tunnels were built to house the massive number of troops that defended the castle – they were later used during both World Wars and made their most important contribution as a control centre during the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. Extended to be used as a hospital and HQ to guard the Straights of Dover, they later again came into use during the Cold War when they were used by the government as a secret location where plans were made in the event of a nuclear attack.

Should I take a tour or do it alone?

Both! Take a self-guided tour around the intriguing medieval palace that is the Great Tower, but don’t worry, you won’t be completely on your own. At the entrance you will be welcomed by interpreters dressed in costume who will bring the past alive for you. They are only there on certain days though so do check before your visit. If you don’t get the chance to see them, there are also life-like hologram characters that will give you a similar experience.

To really get stuck in, take the partly guided ‘Operation Dynamo’ tour in the wartime tunnels which lasts for just under an hour. The famous underground hospital tour which is fully guided is a bit shorter lasting 20 minutes but to be honest you won’t notice the time - there is so much to learn and see at this castle that you’ll never want to leave. Make sure that you also visit the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment Museum, which houses a collection tracing its history. The highlight is on the first Friday of every month (or by special arrangement) where you can watch changing exhibitions of treasures, showcasing amazing artefacts from World War II and the Cold War.

What else can I do there?

The castle estate has great play areas for children, an adventure playground and over 80 acres of grounds to explore when you have finished in the castle. There are various places to eat tucked away within the castle walls including the Great Tower cafe, built in 1901, which serves hot snacks, sandwiches, homemade soup and cakes. Or try the NAAFI restaurant which is in the 1868 Regimental Institute. This is a brilliant place to have a cream tea while looking down at the wartime tunnels and across the Channel to France. If that isn’t an authentic enough experience for you, head to the Wartime Tunnels Cafe where you will find yourself having a spot of lunch in a room built into the original Napoleonic tunnel complex.

"There'll be love and laughter, and peace ever after...tomorrow, when the world is free..."

There is a shop here as well which has a WWII theme which really completes the experience. There is also an ice-cream parlour on site during the summer but our favourite idea by far is to take a picnic to enjoy on the White Cliffs. If you have already done your tour, sitting here quietly and taking in your surroundings can only be a poignant reminder of sacrifices made years before.

Is my dog allowed?

Dogs are allowed on leads in the grounds but not in the buildings.

What is the entry price?

Adults £19.40, concessions £17.50 and children £11.60. Prices may be lower out of season. Price includes Secret Wartime Tunnels tour.

Other castles you may wish to visit in Kent

Rochester Castle – with one of the tallest keeps in England, this imposing fortress is one of the country’s best-preserved castles.

Tonbridge Castle – one of our country’s best examples of a motte and bailey castle with a wonderful 13th century gatehouse.

Walmer Castle – built by Henry VIII as a defence against French invasion, this fascinating castle has been home to both the Duke of Wellington and the Queen Mother.

Deal Castle – also built by Henry VIII, this is a fine example of another beautifully preserved Tudor artillery castle.

Upnor Castle – an Elizabethan artillery fort, this riverside castle was built to protect the Queen’s fleet at Chatham Docks.

Take a tour of these simply spectacular castles from the comfort of our Kent holiday cottages.

The romantic castles of Sussex

Arundel Castle

This family castle, built at the end of the 11th century, has been the seat of the Duke of Norfolk for over 850 years and continues to be to this day. It has been restored many times over the years and dominates the town of Arundel, shadowing everything in its path. It sits high on a hill with amazing views across the South Downs and the River Arun. Though the castle is only open for certain months of the year, it is such a huge part of Sussex life and so beautiful that it had to be included in our guide.

Can I have a little history before I go?

There are nearly 1000 years of fascinating history abound at this castle, built at the end of the 11th century by Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Arundel. The oldest part of the castle is the motte, constructed just after the Battle of Hastings in 1068, soon followed by the gatehouse. King Henry I settled the castle and lands in dower on his second wife, Adeliza of Louvain in his will; she then married William d’Albini II who was later made Earl of Arundel by King Henry II.

The castle has descended directly from 1138 to the present day, carried by both female and male heiresses. There has been the occasional reversion to the Crown but otherwise it has been straight succession. The castle has witnessed executions of its masters, including the 4th Duke who was beheaded for plotting to marry Mary Queen of Scots.

The various owners over the years have been religious or well-known and this can be seen in the many beautiful items you can see today, including furniture from the 16th century and wonderful tapestries and portraits. Personal possessions of Mary, Queen of Scots are also on show. Sadly, the castle was later badly damaged when besieged by Royalists and then again by Cromwell’s Parliamentarian force.

The pure grandeur of the castle is evident when you find out that it was visited by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1846 – the visit was only for three days but a special bedroom and library were commissioned for them which is fascinating to look around. The castle as it is today was mainly restored by the 15th Duke and was one of the first country houses to have electric light and central heating.

Should I take a tour or do it alone?

The best way is to do a guided tour – these can be arranged during the morning before the main castle rooms are opened to visitors. The tour lasts for one and a quarter hours and is £20 per person – you will be in a group of about twenty but you must book this in advance. If you prefer to go alone, you can look around the main rooms of the castle in a free flow manner - there are guides in most rooms who will answer questions and give you lots of interesting information about the castle and its history.

What else can I do there?

There are wonderful grounds and gardens to explore – along with the keep and gatehouse, they have been open to visitors since the early 19th century. The beautiful walled gardens include the Herbaceous Borders, the Stumpery, the renowned Collector Earl’s Garden and the Organic Kitchen Garden which supplies the castle with fresh fruit and vegetables. The unusual peach house and vinery brings an exotic feel to Sussex and is home to a selection of tropical fruits and vegetables. The Fitzalan Chapel offers a charming white garden and for a little touch of the traditional, visit the Rose Garden which has a plethora of English roses just bursting out of every corner. There is a coffee shop on site as well as a shop to buy souvenirs.

Is my dog allowed?

Unfortunately, dogs are not permitted.

What is the entry price?

Prices start at £11 per adult/concession and £10 per child which offers entry to the gardens and grounds, The Collector Earl’s Garden, the Fitzalan Chapel and the shop, café and restaurant. To visit the above and the castle, prices for adults are £20, concessions £17.50 and children £10. Guided tours are £20 per person.

Bodiam Castle

The impossibly romantic 14th century medieval castle of Bodiam sits in the heart of centuries of historic landscape. It is an example of one of our most beautiful buildings and is known for its huge sturdy towers which rise up out of its beautiful moat against a backdrop of spectacular Sussex sky.

There is no better experience than crossing the drawbridge to the castle where you immediately get a taste of what it would have been like to thunder across by horse and carriage to a feast in the great hall. The towers offer the most amazing sweeping views across the River Rother valley and if that isn’t enough, you can turbo charge your experience by catching a steam train to the castle with the Kent and East Sussex Railway!

Can I have a little history before I go?

The castle was built in 1385 by one of Henry VIII’s knights, Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, to defend the area against a potential French invasion during the Hundred Years’ War. It was built out of sandstone and unlike many castles, doesn’t have a keep. During the reign of Richard III, a siege against Bodiam was planned but there are no records to show whether or not this attack actually took place.

Sadly, during the English Civil War, much of the interior was destroyed by Parliamentarians but the exterior walls wouldn’t be brought down and have lived to tell the tale. The castle just survived as a ruin during the 17th and 18th centuries, and like many at this time, went into disrepair and became covered in ivy. Now owned by the National Trust, it is visited by over 150,000 people every year and has appeared in numerous films and videos.

Should I take a tour or do it alone?

You can take brilliant guided tours where you will discover intriguing and often gruesome tales from the colourful medieval characters that lead the tours. These include William the forester, Blanche the webster and Ebete the huckster amongst others. They are a wealth of information and will talk you through the history of the castle and how they would have experienced it in their role. You can also watch a short DVD, which will explain a little history about the castle and then make your way around at your leisure. The castle has a ruined interior so much of the experience is walking amongst the ruins, but there is enough of an interior structure to imagine how the castle was in its day.

Climb up the spiral staircases and peek through the narrow slitted windows where arrows would be shot at the enemy, and check out the old lookout tower. Make sure that you also visit the well room and the great hall where you can imagine the many celebrations and feasts taking place. Check out the original wooden portcullis which is a very rare example – set in the gatehouse, it is an integral part of the visit. In the gatehouse tower you will also see the ghoulish murder holes under which prisoners would have been kept, waiting for their fate to rain down upon them in all manner of grisly ways.

What else can I do there?

There are extensive grounds to explore and for a bite to eat, the Wharf tea room serves home-cooked seasonal food. There is a refreshment kiosk and various picnic benches outside that are wonderful to sit at on a sunny day. There is also a great shop that sells gifts, cards and local produce.

If you want a full day out experience, you can also hop aboard a steam train on the Kent and East Sussex Railway from Tenterden which takes in the castle on its journey around Sussex. There is also a boating station in Bodiam and free guided walks around the castle to make your visit even more special.

Is my dog allowed?

Yes, but only in the grounds – there is a dog tethering point and dog bowl outside the ticket office opposite the castle entrance for thirsty hounds.

What is the entry price?

Entry to the castle and grounds is £10.30 per adult and £5.15 per child.

Herstmonceux Castle

Easily one of the most beautiful medieval castles in the area, this 15th century moated structure is surrounded by 300 acres of woodland and formal gardens. Surprisingly for a castle, it is made from red brick and is one of the earliest examples of this form of building material in England. Previously only used in France, it is far removed from the typical red brick structures we see today. The castle has been visited by such luminaries as Sir Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking and Queen Elizabeth II and still attracts thousands of visitors yearly from all over the globe.

Can I have a little history before I go?

The castle was originally a 12th century manor house called ‘Herste of the Monceux’, when Idonea de Herste joined in matrimony with a Normal nobleman, Ingelram de Monceux. Later in 1440 a Sussex Knight by the name of Roger Fiennes became the owner of the house. He had risen to prominence, not only serving Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt some years before but as a treasurer of Henry VI, and decided to show off his importance by making the house into a castle.

Unfortunately, the success of the Fiennes family with the Royal Henrys was to come to an end in 1541 as the owner at the time, Lord Dacre was implicated in the murder of a local gamekeeper and executed by the king. The estate was seized by the crown and later handed back to the family by Elizabeth I. The family and castle prospered through turbulent times including the civil war and it was refurbished during the Restoration period. Sadly, their fortunes soon came to an end due to these costly refurbishments as well as the excessive gambling of Lord Dacre, and the estate was sold to George Naylor for the princely sum of £38,000.

Some years later, the castle was deemed to be in such a state of disrepair that it was partly demolished and reduced to a gothic shell covered in ivy. The growth of tourism in the 18th century made the castle a popular attraction for visitors to the nearby coastal towns of Brighton and Eastbourne.

However, it was still in a state of disrepair and in 1910, an eccentric MP called Colonel Claude Lowther saved the day and started restoring the castle. Like many buildings, it felt the effects of the war and was later sold to become a centre of scientific research and home to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. The RGO later moved to Cambridge and this part of the estate became the Observatory Science Centre. It still uses the famous green telescope domes that you can see today as you drive up the long sweeping drive to the castle.

Should I take a tour or do it alone?

Because the castle is now an international centre of study, it isn’t open freely to the public, so you would need to take a scheduled tour. Lasting one hour, there is a cost of £2.50 per adult/concession and £1.00 per child under 16. As tours are scheduled around timetables and events, it is best to check their website for details, but they are generally open between March and October. You can tour the gardens and grounds however at any time which is £6.00 per adult, £5.00 concessions and £3.00 children under 16. You can also visit the Science Centre for an additional charge.

What else can I do there?

There are seven formal themed gardens with 300 acres of woodland as well as tea rooms and a visitor centre. On the woodland trails you will find 300-year-old chestnut trees as well as The Folly and The Secret Garden. The Lake and Moat Walk will certainly clear your mind and you can finish off with a tasty cream tea at Chestnuts Tea Room before heading home.

Is my dog allowed?

Yes, in the gardens and grounds but please keep them on a lead.

What is the entry price?

As above.

Other castles you may wish to visit in Sussex

Hastings Castle – originally a motte and bailey castle and part of the 1066 story, this coastal castle is now in ruins but full of amazing history and intrigue.

Lewes Castle – an 11th century Norman castle that sits at the highest point of Lewes, you can also see Anne of Cleves house with a combined ticket.

Pevensey Castle – originating in the 4th century as a Roman ‘Saxon Shore’ fort, this was the landing place of William the Conqueror’s army in the 1066 Battle of Hastings.

Bramber Castle – a motte and bailey castle now in ruins, strategically placed to defend a gap in the South Downs.

Camber Castle – now just ruins of a 16th century artillery fort, it was built by Henry VIII to guard the port of Rye against French attack.

Explore historic Sussex and its incredible castles from our variety of holiday cottages in Sussex located nearby.

Where to find the castles of Kent and Sussex

Plan your tour of Kent and Sussex castles from the list on the map below.

To find out even more about what to see and do in the region, take a look at our complete guide to Kent and complete guide to Sussex.

*Prices are correct at the time of publishing; however, they are subject to change. Some castles have seasonal restrictions - please check each castle's website for details.

**lyrics are from Greensleeves and The White Cliffs of Dover.

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